The Secular City

Chapter 2 imageIn 1965 a Baptist theologian in the United States called Harvey Cox wrote a book which was intended for a fairly confined audience. It was to provide the basis for discussion in a series of conferences organized by the National Student Christian Federation. He called it The Secular City. To his great surprise it suddenly took off. It began to be read by many people for whom it was not specifically intended. Both American and foreign theologians began arguing about it. Sociologists and city planners began discussing it. It reached an unexpectedly large Roman Catholic audience. Within a short time it had sold half a million copies in America alone — and had been translated into seven other languages. By the following year a book appeared called The Secular City Debate. It presented a sample of the wide diversity of responses which Cox’s book had brought forth — some of them appreciative, some of them harshly critical.

Why was the book so widely read? And why did people come to such different opinions about it? Cox had put his finger on an issue which, though sensitive, pinpointed the most dominant trends in today’s city. The issue is two-fold:

The spread of urbanization and with it, the process of secularization.

Cox defined this process as one in which people turn their gaze away from a supposed other-world and fasten their attention on this world and this time. For saeculum is the Latin word which means ‘this present age’.

These two dominant processes he put together in the term The Secular City, with the implication that this is the dominant image of the city which operates today. Many refuse to acknowledge that there is any good in this secular city. They see it as an enlarged and grotesque form of the wicked city. This is particularly so with many church people who, though they live in the secular city, keep contrasting it with their ideal city, which they call the holy city. Cox set out to allay what fears Christians may have about the increasing manifestation of the secular city. He tried to show it is not the wicked city many take it to be, and that there are many advantages it has given to us for reaching more fruitful levels of human existence. Instead of being seen as an enemy to be fought and held in check, it should be seen as the logical development of certain trends deeply embedded in the Judaeo-Christian tradition itself.

Cox’s book is a little dated now and should certainly not go unchallenged. But it raises issues which are still with us.

What is the character of the modern secular city? There are three we may usefully observe. The first we may call mobility. Cox notes that there are two visual images which we frequently associate with the city; the switchboard and the cloverleaf. Since his book it has become necessary to add the computer. The telephone switchboard means that in spite of the very large population of the city, we have the opportunity for instant communication with the person of our choice. And the arrival of STD (Subscriber Telephone Dialling) in most cities of the western world illustrates better than anything how fast the globe is becoming one city.

Our best example in Wellington of the clover-leaf is that at the new Ngauranga intersection of two motorways. In the big European and American cities, these clover#leaf intersections are much more complex. They manifest the variety of directions in which people choose to travel. Not only are there many geographical directions, but these in turn symbolize the variety of career directions one can take and the variety of opportunities for life fulfilment.

Compare the city with the village. There was one main street — the High Street. It led in and it led out. And life in the village was often just as confined. One tended simply to follow in one’s father’s trade, if a man, or become a housewife and mother, if a woman. The clover-leaf of city life keeps presenting us with choice after choice. Further, the clover-leaf symbolizes the fact that, as a result of increased choices, we are people more frequently on the move. City people less commonly put down their roots for long periods, but move from suburb to suburb, from city to city. In the age of the village, life was sedentary. One spent one’s whole life very often within an area perhaps only fifteen kilometres in diameter. So it was in the first cities. But in the modern secular city there is great mobility. Instant communication, constant change and instant information. First it was access to knowledge stored in libraries. Now it is the computer. Knowledge which once took a lifetime to amass is now instantly available. Soon, at the touch of a button, we shall be able to call it up on our television screens.

From mobility we turn secondly to anonymity as a characteristic of the secular city. This aspect of city life is what often first strikes a person from a rural area, where everybody knows everybody. By contrast, in the city it first appears that nobody really knows anybody. Other people become nameless faces we pass in streets, sit with in a bus or theatre. In our contacts we do not speak of people by name but by the role in which we meet them — the "person on duty", the "girl at the counter", the "rubbish man", the "paper boy", "the milkman". . . Even at work it can be the case we do not even know by name people working close to us, let alone have any kind of personal relationship with them.

Of course in one sense the great numbers of people in a city make this essential. A city mayor who set out to know all the citizens on a personal basis would never get anything else done. Nor is this phenomenon completely without its advantages. Because it is not possible to know all our contacts personally, it frees us to be highly selective in those whose friendship we do want to cultivate. Although the city can be the loneliest place in the world, its anonymity means also that there we have greater opportunities for living our private lives than we have in the country. There your presence cannot fail to be noted and you are talked about, whether you like it or not.

Let us now turn from the mode of life in the modern city to its secular character I have so far defined secular as ‘this worldly’ in orientation, compared with the alternative of being ‘other worldly’. Another term we could use as the polar opposite of the secular city is to speak of the holy city.

There are three cities which in the course of history have come to be regarded as the chief claimants of this title. First, there is Benares in North East India, on the River Ganges, the holy city of Hinduism. Secondly, there is Mecca, the holy Muslim city towards which every faithful Muslim turns several times a day in order to say his prayers. Thirdly, there is the city of Jerusalem, revered as holy by all three faiths of Middle Eastern origin, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Any religious tradition which acknowledges one city to be a holy city keeps focussing attention on that city — going there if it is at all possible on holy pilgrimage. That city provides for the devotee a centre to his world. This is very clear in Islam where every mosque has its Kibla, or apse, which marks the direction of Mecca. The central point provided by the holy city symbolizes the fact that the religious faith stemming from that city gives direction and meaning to life.

One of the reasons why Jews built synagogues, Christians built churches and Muslims built mosques is that the further one lives from the holy city the more difficult it is to go there. So the church, synagogue or mosque becomes a holy place which serves as a centre for the village, town or city where one lives. As Christianity spread through Europe and Western Asia, the church became the village centre and the cathedral the city centre. The market square, where business and trade were carried on, where celebrations occurred, was very often directly in front of the church or cathedral.

This meant that every pre-modern city of the Christian West had a holy centre. Such was the magnificence of the buildings of the European cathedrals during the High Middle Ages that one was left in no doubt as to where the centre of the city was. The one city of New Zealand where this state of affairs is still clearly visible is Christchurch, where the Cathedral still dominates the city, remains the centre-point of the city and is faced by a large open square, now a pedestrian precinct. But in most cities today it is very different! Even in London the great dome of St. Paul’s which long was visible from almost everywhere in London, has now become hidden among large blocks of post-war commercial buildings.

The secular city, unlike earlier cities of Christendom, has no holy centre. Indeed it tends to have no real centre at all. When the modern city first began to emerge the city hall tended to become the centre. In the late 19th century it was the railway station. Each city may develop its own idea of a centre. In Dunedin, for a long time, in spite of the presence of First Church with its imposing Gothic spire, it was actually the Stock Exchange which was the centre. By and large the modern secular city has no centre — certainly no permanent and universally acknowledged centre. Each person sees and finds their own centre — depending upon interests. That means that the city no longer supplies us with a kind of architectural model of our world, of an ordered cosmos, which conveys to us a strong sense of direction and purpose. The city of Christendom once used to do that. The spire to be seen from everywhere, was a constant reminder that eyes should be continually turned to God above. The bells which were rung from the church or cathedral were a call to prayer. Indeed the tinkling of bells still heard at the Roman Catholic Mass is only the relic of the practice of ringing the great bells so that all within hearing distance would know the moment in which that miracle had taken place once again by which the bread and wine had become the body and blood of Jesus.

Many Christians look back nostalgically to cities of European Christendom with their holy centres; for these give, both visually and in sound, a clear sense of direction and order to life. Such people deplore the fact that those characteristics have been choked to death by the rise of the secular city.

But there is another side to it. The homogeneity and uniformity of life in a city with a holy centre was fine for all those who whole-heartedly embraced the Christian faith. But what of others, the Jews for example? They could not be citizens of that city. They could be allowed no part of that city. They had to be herded into a ghetto and sealed off, as it were, from the Christian community.

What also of those solitary individuals, who from time to time, followed their own independent thoughts, exerted their individuality and questioned one aspect or another of the foundations of the Christian city? They too could not be tolerated. Stern measures were often taken to ensure that all conformed. That is the other side of the Christian city of the Middle Ages. It was selective, not wholly human. It limited personal freedom. It curbed initiative. At times it even imprisoned the human spirit. Since the Renaissance and Reformation, which mark the first clear beginnings of the modern world, personal freedom has been growing in successive stages, resulting in increasing diversity of thought and conviction.

As the modern world emerged it became necessary to break out of the boundaries and rigid forms into which the Christian tradition had become fixed. While on the one hand these had given security, on the other hand, they were becoming a prison. This is why in the late nineteenth century the prophetic insight of Nietzsche charged Christianity with teaching a slave morality.

The result of this outburst of human freedom and of the emancipation of western society from ecclesiastical control necessarily meant that the modern city had to become secular. There could no longer be a holy centre. To allow freedom for the individual, the institution both of city and of the nation, had to become religiously neutral. The only kind of a human society consistent with the freedom of the individual human spirit is one of religious pluralism.

This brings us to a new and important meaning of the word secular. It should not be equated with ‘non-religious’ far less with ‘anti-religious’ but with ‘religiously neutral’. The modern secular city, like the modern secular state, must be religiously neutral in order that its citizens may be religiously free. Good examples of the modern secular state are India, United States and New Zealand. England and Sweden are secular in practice, but, in theory, they are still religious states. Russia, in theory, is a secular state but, because of its official commitment to an anti-religious ideology, it is actually a ‘religious’ state of a negative kind.

The secular city, like the secular state, has therefore become religiously necessary in the modern world. Many traditional Christians find that hard to accept and feel great nostalgia for the former holy city or the city with a holy centre.

One of the reasons Cox wrote his book was to expound two main theses. The first is that the modern secular world was a product of Western Europe. The second is that the secular world, far from being an enemy of the religious tradition out of which it has emerged, is in fact the logical development of certain trends which have been present in the Judaeo-Christian stream from the beginning. There is no time here to discuss his arguments at length. They may be briefly described as follows.

First, Cox contended, the Hebrew teaching about creation had the effect of separating God from the forces of nature. Whereas primal man treated the very forces of nature themselves as sacred, the Hebrews saw them as having no ultimate power over mankind. Rather, mankind was given legitimate control over them. The forces of nature were effectively desacralized.

Secondly, the Exodus from Egypt under Moses was a dramatic rejection of the conviction that hitherto had been unquestioned, namely that royal houses and aristocratic classes rule by divine right. Moses led the first of what was destined to be a long series of social revolutions before this truth was to be universally recognized. The Exodus was the first step, said Cox, in the process of taking the ‘sacred’ out of politics, that is of desacralizing the institutions of social power and government.

Thirdly, the ancient covenant at Mt. Sinai between the Israelites and their God, Cox saw as the relativizing of all absolutes. This is expressed particularly in the first two commandments which call for the iconoclastic destruction of anything from this world which begins to assume the absoluteness, the holiness, the finality, which belong to God alone. Cox called this the deconsecration of values. He meant that all our value systems are relative to a time and place. They are open to criticism. They must not be treated as eternal and unchangeable.

In short, it was Cox’s contention that the process of secularization which is the dominant trend in modernity really found its origin in the very foundations of the Judaeo-Christian faith because of the way it desacralized various aspects of life in the world — and that is why the modern world emerged out of the Christian West and from nowhere else. This means that though the term ‘secular city’ cannot be termed an image of the city which is explicit in the Bible, it is nevertheless one which is implicit in the Bible.

There is one strange confirmation of this in the Bible. It is in the Book of Revelation, that last book of the New Testament which has both puzzled and yet fascinated Christians ever since it was written. Right at the end of the book (and consequently of the Christian Bible itself), the writer describes a vision he saw of a new kind of world which was to replace the present world. He described it as a holy city, a new Jerusalem. One of the features of this city was that there would be no temple in it — there was to be no holy centre!

Why was this to be the case? He explained! It was because the only temple would be the Lord God Almighty. But where was this God to be found, if not in a temple or church? He would be found among his people. He would be found among and in human beings. The very same Greek language is used here as we find in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel in the passage that gave rise to the term ‘incarnation’. There it says that the logos or word of God became enfleshed in Jesus. But here it says that in this city of the future, God will cease to be the transcendent divine ruler in heaven above and will be in and among, not just one particular person, but in all people.

All this is expressed in ancient mythical language. Yet it is in many ways the most daring thought in the whole Bible. The implication is that in the city of the future the dichotomy between holy and secular will have disappeared. There will be no difference between the secular city and the holy city. There will be no difference between God and the human community.

It is abundantly clear that we are still a long way from the realization of that ancient vision. Yet it may help us to see that although the modern secular city must not be regarded as any final product, it may well be an important stage on the way towards a yet more satisfying and fruitful form of human existence. Already in the modern secular city there is increased freedom and choice of opportunity. But at the same time we must assume increased responsibility for our human future. We participate more and more in the prerogatives which formerly were attributed to God.

We now have to determine the direction we should take where formerly the direction was laid down for us already. Life in the secular city may be freer but not easier.

Because our future is coming increasingly into our own human hands it is all the less certain.